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Linux in Libraries an Overdue Concept?

Both institutions deal with free materials, yet Linux and libraries haven’t always turned out to be an ideal match, according to Tom Curl, a consultant and entrepreneur with a couple of library implementations to his own credit.

Linux-enabled back-end systems are in very widespread use for cataloging books and other library content, acknowledged Curl, who heads up Medfield, MA-based Enertex Systems. But when it comes to end user terminals, the PCs accessed by patrons in actual physical library settings, Curl considers only a handful of deployments in the US to be real success stories.

Curl first stepped into the Linux-in-libraries scene around five years ago, through a previous venture known as Starwood Partners. The consultant reasoned that libraries would be especially keen on avoiding the costs of Windows licenses and maintenance by embracing Linux as an alternative for Internet use and other forms of public access computing.

After all, development had just begun on Evergreen, an open source back-end Integrated Library System (ILS) designed to streamline the sharing of books across consortia of multiple libraries. Beyond that, libraries tend to be quite budget-conscious.

“Libraries like to save money, and Linux is relatively inexpensive. So the whole idea of implementing Linux on the front end, too, seemed to make a lot of sense,” Curl recalled recently.

Starwood Partners started to promote the use of Linux in libraries through a variety of means, including making appearances at library association conferences.

Their first customer was the public library system of Guilford, an affluent town on the Connecticut shore. Using a stack developed by Curl’s business partner, the Guilford Public Library began replacing the Windows-based PCs with LTPS-driven thin clients in September, 2004.

All together, 16 workstations of various configurations and two touch-screen kiosks were installed in Guilford. All of the workstations deployed back in 2004 got outfitted with USB drives, three of them with CD/RW drives, one with a large-screen monitor, and another one with a document scanner.

Software applications available to the library visitors included Firefox, for Internet browsing; Web-based e-mail; and the Open Office suite.

Shortly following the Guilford deployment, Starwood set up a similar system in Norwich, CT, a less posh working-class town somewhat to the north. In each community, library personnel obtained training in how to use the Linux applications before opening up the system to library patrons.

To get on to a workstation, the library patrons in Connecticut first signed up on a kiosk, requesting the type of workstation required. If the workstation was in use, the visitor was assigned to a queue and prioritized for access. The user session time was set to one hour, 15 minutes.

"Warning messages" went out to the workstation at intervals of 15 minutes and five minutes before a session ended. If nobody was waiting in the queue, the end user could extend the session in five-minute intervals by clicking on a request button.

As Curl tells the tale, however, many of the library patrons in Guilford were already well accustomed to Windows PCs, and found it hard to adjust to the Linux apps. “You can do almost anything you want to do in Linux, but you might have to do it differently,” he noted.

Guilford residents would stand in queue “literally for hours on end” to access the Internet over the library’s T1 lines, which offered far faster speeds than their home set-ups. But the users couldn’t always get answers at the library for their questions about the Linux apps, according to Curl.

For no definitely discernible reason, the sailing seemed smoother for Linux in nearby Norwich, though. Could this have been because the end users in the Norwich library system had less Windows “unlearning” to do? Many of the patrons in Norwich had emigrated from elsewhere in the world to work in the region’s factories, Curl observed.

Yet the public libraries of both Connecticut communities ended up switching back to Windows as soon as funding sprung up for upgrading their computer systems.

“Unforunately, the level of enthusiasm just isn't high enough among most librarians. Librarians are into books, but they’re not necessarily into computers,” Curl theorized. “For Linux to work in a library, the librarian needs to be a Linux enthusiast--or a computer geek, at least."

As examples of successful public computing access implementations of Linux in libraries, Curl pointed to deployments in Nelsonville, Ohio and in the state of Georgia.

On the other hand, he suggested, back-end systems such as Evergreen have grown popular precisely because they’re typically staffed by IT pros who are well versed in Linux.

Evergreen was initially created by the Georgia Public Library Service (GPLS) for cost effective library access to the Public Information Network for Electronic Services (PINES), a statewide resource-sharing consortium.

The open source back-end cataloging and indexing system has since been implemented by the National Weather Center Library in Norman, OK along with separate library consortia in Indiana, Michigan, Maryland, and British Columbia, for instance.

Meanwhile, Curl does hold out some hope for more end user-facing Linux implementations for library patrons. Firefox has evolved in user-friendly directions over the years, and the prevalence of both Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) and ActiveX Web pages is on the wane, according to the consultant.

But he added that both he and his former business partner have given up on trying to inculcate Linux use among public library patrons.

 

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